Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: Research finds that many older people can't get up from a fall

About 35% of people over age 65 fall in their homes at least once each year. That figure increases to 50% for those ages 75 and over. We have less information on falls among people over age 85, who are mostly women and now make up the fastest-growing segment of the elderly population. But one study of women and men ages 91 to 105 found that about 60% had at least one fall in the course of a year.

Most of the resulting injuries are minor, but falls can also cause major lacerations, fractures, head trauma, and other injuries that may lead to hospitalization, disability, nursing home care, and premature death. Falls also have psychological consequences. Fear of falling and an associated general loss of confidence can result in depression, isolation, and a decline in physical function caused by lack of activity.

How to get up from a fall by yourself

  1. Lie quietly for a few moments. Take some deep breaths, gather your thoughts, and take stock of your situation. If you think you're not hurt and can get up safely, roll over onto your side and rest for a moment, to allow your blood pressure to adjust.

  1. Slowly get up on your hands and knees, and crawl over to a sturdy chair.

  1. Support your upper body by placing one hand (or arm), then the other, on the seat of the chair. Bend the knee of your stronger leg, and slide that foot forward so that it's flat on the floor. Keep your other knee on the floor.

  1. Slowly rise from the kneeling position and turn yourself around to sit in the chair. Once again, rest for a moment. Assess your situation. Call for help if you need it.

Not surprisingly, there has been considerable research on how to prevent falls in older people. Recommended preventive strategies include strength training and balance work, vision checks, medication review, and home modifications. But there is no way to prevent all falls, so it's important to limit their complications. A major source of complications is lying on the floor for a long time afterward, a risk that increases with age and declining muscle function. For older people in particular, it can result in pneumonia, pressure sores, dehydration, hypothermia, and even death.

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